By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was the evening of March 1, an unofficial green flag for the stretch drive in the National Hockey League season. The Buffalo Sabres had lost two in a row and six of their last seven, pushing them eight points out of a playoff spot. The website hockey-reference.com put the Sabres’ chances of making the playoffs at a mere 4.5 percent.
What’s more, the Sabres were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins – a team that is in right in the middle of the playoff race as opposed to trying to stay on the fringes of it for the time being. These are not the Cup-contending Penguins, but they still have starpower in the form of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to make it a long night for any team. That’s particularly true when you let those two skate around a lot as if the whole game was played three skaters a side, which is what it seemed like at times.
And yet, the Sabres won.
They beat the Penguins, 4-3, in overtime in an absolute thrill ride of a hockey game, one that certainly left everyone in the KeyBank Center on Friday night thoroughly drained.
“We obviously have been a tough rut lately, back and forth,” Jack Eichel said. “We’ve played some good hockey, and then we haven’t. To come out against a team that is in a tough spot – they are a desperate team – we found a way to get the two points. That’s what is important.”
The Sabres did it on a night when they were down a goal with less than three minutes to go in regulation time – even if Pittsburgh could have had seven goals on the night. The Sabres came back on goals by one guy who wasn’t even on the roster the last time Buffalo played a game in this building, and by another who was wearing the other team’s uniform a year ago at this time. More on them in a moment.
Penguins pile up shots
In the meantime, it was a bit surprising that the Sabres were even in a position to come from behind to win this one. That feeling started in the first period, when the Penguins piled up 20 shots to Buffalo’s seven. That may not have been an accurate barometer of how the game flowed, but Linus Ullmark still had to keep the puck out of his net – and he did it 19 times. Buffalo still came away with a 2-1 lead, on goals by Eichel and Conor Sheary.
The second period was more calm, but it was easy to wonder how the Penguins weren’t ahead by a good-sized margin. When Scott Wilson took a four-minute double minor for high sticking, the Penguins got down to business. Patric Hornqvist and Crosby scored on the power plays to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead.
“Whenever you put a team like that on the power play as we did in the second, it ruins the flow of the game and you are giving their best players a lot of touches,” Eichel said. “They are starting to feel the game. If you are getting power plays, your game comes on because you’re feeling the puck.”
But after the Sabres were outplayed for 40 minutes, they found their game for much of the third period.
“We had to start skating, and checking with our legs and not our sticks,” Sheary said. “I think we had a fresh mindset going into the third.”
Buffalo had some chances to tie it as the period went on while Pittsburgh had opportunities to clinch it. Neither one happened – until Brandon Montour took a shot from inside the middle of the blue line. The defenseman who was acquired from Anaheim on Sunday got the puck through traffic and into the net with 2:32 left.
“He plays to win,” coach Phil Housley said about Montour, the first Sabre ever to wear uniform no. 62. “He attacks the game. He tries to bring a physical element, and he got rewarded. There are some things we have to work on, but I like the tenacity in his game.”
Take that, ex-teammates
The overtime wasn’t exactly a coach’s delight, with turnovers and close calls filling the first four minutes plus of the extra session. But no one could deny it was dramatic. Finally, Sheary got some room in the Pittsburgh zone and let go a great shot that beat Matt Murray. The ex-Penguin celebrated the win over his old team.
“That was a good one for me to get,” Sheary said. “Overall, I need to score more. That was a little more special getting one against my old squad.”
But even the final celebration was delayed for a while. Officials took a look at a possible offside call against the Sabres well before the goal was scored. After an eternity from a Sabre perspective, the goal stood – even if the Penguins may have had an argument based on a replay.
It was a nice come-from-behind win for Buffalo, especially for a team that entered the game with its confidence badly shaken. Maybe this win will provide a booster shot in that area.
“Early on in the season, we had that a little more often,” Sheary said. “I hope tonight is a reminder of how we good we are and how good a team we can be.”
Now comes the tough part. Two straight wins would be much more significant than one in this situation, since they haven’t done that since December. And a road win in Toronto on Saturday night would be appreciated as well, since Buffalo hasn’t won on the road since Jan. 29.
At this time of the year, there’s always another test.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)